“The Brothers Karamazov” has the perfect murder. Furthermore, the murderer is a proxy for someone who could never have murdered but feels guilty all the same. And the person for whom the proxy acts is so wracked with guilt, he might as well have committed the crime. There is a phenomenal scene where that person talks to the devil who he realizes is a figment of his imagination, but who is so real that even the reader believes he is real.

Dostoevsky mentions furniture just once. He refers to a house as being furnished in an “old fashioned” style. I can’t imagine what that would be, but I would love to know what was considered old fashioned in 1880 and what would have been considered a la mode.

Russian literature which I have read very little of–two novels by Tolstoy, two by Dostoevsky and one by Mikhail Bulgakov–is extremely compelling. They are so rich over the last two to three hundred pages that you don’t want to stop reading and yet you hope they won’t end. The understanding of human nature in all of these books has been profound. I think about what Thomas Cahill said in “Sailing the Wine Dark Sea” about how the ancient Greeks were into the essence of things and Romans were into the form. The Russians and the Greeks must be related.

No matter how good and right a revelation seems, it can be wrong. Perhaps that is why most people think of revelations as being spiritual in nature, because a spiritual revelation requires no proof. I, however, like to try and figure things out and when I think I have, I revel in revelation. If I get it wrong, then I start again.

In any case, I am wrong about the decoration on the front of my wine cooler (the strigliation or wavy flutes). It was used at least until 1805. After that date, I have no clear indication of whether it continued to be used. What is clear is that strigliation was introduced post 1760 and that is about all that we can be clear about.

My error was to rely on style as a dating device. Will someone who comes across a pair of Tom Wolfe’s spats in one hundred years think they date from 1929 or 2009? Stylistically, they would be deemed to be out of fashion in 2009 and such a dating would be incorrect. And yet 2009 is the correct date.

It would be and always is better to judge by the factual evidence such as the leather, the aglets, the machine work or even the label. These are the clues that can render a relatively accurate date. Even so, I will never rescind the revelation of dental floss. It feels too good.

It isn’t often that I have a revelation about antique furniture, but it happened this week. I have a wine cooler on my site with a strigliated front (wavy flutes) and a carved stylized patera top with lion paw handles and feet in brass. On researching the piece, I found that the date put on these coolers ranges from mid-18th century to Regency. The confusion is based, I believe, on the lions which are Regency, but the strigliation is taken directly from Roman sarcophagi. By the late 18th century, Roman influenced design is not only on the wane, it has been completely phased out. In other words, the wine cooler has to date concurrent with the influence of Roman influenced designers such as Robert Adam, James “Athenian Stuart or William Chambers making the date for the coolers circa 1770.

Revelations come in all sizes and this one is not major. I am quite certain that other experts have made this realization before me, but I sense that the confusion is just another shibboleth that riddles the antique furniture world. I would like to think that there is actual evidence of these coolers being made in the 19th century, and it may exist, but I sincerely doubt that such evidence will be found. One should never say never, however.

I have been thinking about revelations because of reading “The Brothers Karamazov”. Dostoevsky does revelations very well (Raskalnikov in “Crime and Punishment”, Zosima and Alyosha in “The Brothers Karamazov”) but his revelations are more Leonard Cohen and less St. Augustine, less dogma and more Delphic Oracle. I know that one of my own personal revelations, minor in the scheme of things but important to me, was dental floss. Seemingly prosaic, but not really.

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired a kouros, the statue of a Greek youth, in the 1980’s that many have called a forgery. The provenance of the piece is certainly fake and some scientific tests seem to point to it being of relatively modern manufacture. Other tests seem to indicate that it is old. Aesthetes are divided on the subject. The statue is on exhibit with the tag that it is either circa 530 B.C. or a modern forgery.

What happens to a piece that has been tainted by scandal?  Sadly, even if there is nothing wrong with it or, as happens in English furniture when a piece is enhanced in restoration, the piece is tainted. Rumor and innuendo can damage a piece much more than factual evidence as the story is usually too good to be kept under wraps. The Getty kouros will forever be at the Getty and I suspect that there will never be a scientific test that will mollify the critics or prove the piece a forgery.

The question that begs to be asked is, why do we care if something is not original? There are lots of right reasons for caring, most of them to do with the body of work that is represented by an artist (or cabinetmaker) and any catalogue raisonne of that person’s accomplishments. The wrong reasons have to do with investment. Strictly speaking, investment in art matters a great deal to the art world, but when investment becomes the raison d’etre of a buyer, there will be people wanting to take advantage of that buyer.

I have been asked many times how one should set about buying art or antiques. I think the first step is to find someone that you trust and that the second test is to listen to them very closely. No scientific tests, no aesthetic consensus and no verbose descriptions will ever satisfy the over riding question of a collector which should be, tell me why I should buy this item from you? There really isn’t any other question that needs asking.

As the art and antiques business gets more pricey, the rationalization of value gets more attenuated. Look in any auction catalogue to see how a more expensive piece is catalogued. There is a description, a provenance if any and then there is more and a lot more if the piece has a huge estimate. That more will include the lives of previous owners to the odd scientific tests.

Further description is important, there is no doubt. Someone may want to buy something owned by an historical figure and related examples are extremely important to know as they give a sense of an artist or craftsman’s work in relation to the piece offered. Certain scientific reports can be helpful as you don’t want a Michelangelo painted on contemporary canvas. A friend recently read a report to me, however, by a dendrochronologist, someone who dates old wood. When he said “…believed to be” twice to me, I said that was enough. Too many caveats for it to mean anything to me.

Not all knowledge is quantifiable. The knowledge of an artist’s style is something learned by looking at a great deal of the artist’s work. No matter how good at it you get, you can still be wrong. This is also true with furniture. Wood tests and analyses don’t necessarily answer any questions, they just certify some facts that still have to be synthesized into a reasonable conclusion. That conclusion may, alas, be incorrect.

I would suggest to anyone wanting to buy the best of the best in any field that they find one person to trust and then, once you trust that person, learn to listen to that person. It is more important than additional descriptions, it is more important than all the scientific analyses you can imagine. It is, in fact, the crux to buying good artworks.

The interesting thing about people who are politically partisan is that, in this day and age, they tend not to acknowledge any other point of view than their own. My conservative friends think I am a liberal Democrat and my liberal Democrat friends think I am a conservative Republican. That is because I disagree with both of them often. I also disagree with waste and corruption and I strongly disagree with the synthesis of church and state.

I have liked a great many Republicans and Democrats over the years. Without naming names, the last two mayors of New York have been terrific, in my opinion. I haven’t liked the presidents over the last sixteen years, but one tends to learn to live with that situation. I have hated the politics surrounding those two presidents.

Politics lacks the essential skill of negotiation at this point in time. We seem to have lost that skill. Perhaps it was the injection of family values into political debates or perhaps religious zealotry that has drowned out the essential strength of two sides reaching a compromise.

The former Treasury Secretary (briefly) under George W. Bush, Paul O’Neill, wrote a great article about waste in the health care system. That is what should be fixed first and foremost. We seem to want to protect and enlarge a system that is broken, not because it works, but because it already exists despite being riddled with corruption and waste. Why is that?

The people in politics remain open to ridicule. There are currently three Republicans that are imploding on a national level, but they don’t own the title for bad behavior–it is shared with the Democrats. So, for my partisan friends, I suggest they take a more jaundiced view about politics and politicians and not be quite so dogmatic about everything save for one issue–getting this country to work properly.

It was William Sidney Smith who thwarted Napoleon at the siege of Acre in 1799. Smith seemed to understand Napoleon’s next move before Napoleon was able to make it. Acre was the fulcrum that might have tipped the entire east to Napoleon, but instead he returned to Egypt. Destiny, for Napoleon, was delayed.

It was not such a bad thing that Napoleon returned to Egypt. His eastern dreams put on indefinite hold, he chose to return to France, taking with him many of Vivant Denon’s drawings of the ruins of the Upper Nile. These drawings were the fodder for designers for years to come and echoed strongly among elite aesthetes such as Thomas Hope, Percier and Fontaine and William Beckford.

Napoleon’s desire was to enlighten Egypt which is why he took 167 “savants” with him. These were artists, mathematicians, cartographers, naturalists, etc. who were to establish an academy of learning in Cairo. The ignominious surrender by the French of Egypt does not tarnish the incredible work done by these savants including the discovery of the Rosetta Stone on July 19, 1799. It was immediately known to be important as the key to understanding hieroglyphics. It could be said that the invasion was a failure but the cataloguing of Egypt was a huge success. It is just another aspect of the best and worst of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The world of politics has to be the strangest world of all. The New York State Senate will probably do their best to submarine the Governor after their enforced sessions in Albany this weekend to get some work done. As a resident of New York, I think the Governor is trying to get us our money’s worth from these gentlemen.

“Napoleon in Egypt” is a book by Paul Strathern about Napoleon’s foray into Egypt that was to turn him into a true “man of destiny”. A man of destiny is both a doer and a strategic thinker, soemone who isn’t daunted or deterred by events as the next choice is always the right choice. Nelson’s legendary opponents, Nelson and Wellington and the Tsar, all benefited from this decisiveness. A strength can just as easily be a weakness depending on circumstance. Just ask Achilles.

There were plenty of men of destiny in the twentieth century–none were senators from New York, however. Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Churchill all qualify. FDR might also fit the bill but democracy doesn’t seem to create such men as readily as totalitarian systems. That may be one of the better things about democracy after all.

I think I posted this some time ago, but as it is nearly the season, I am posting it again in great anticipation of the first ripe tomato.


Those who like to say to-mah-toe

Enjoy the tone, the deep vibrato.

Those who say it is to-may-toe,

Know their god, know who to pray to.

To them, to-mah is pseudo-classy,

To-may, to me, is just too brassy.

There is proof, alas, that one is right.

It comes sublimely, after one sweet bite,

The syllable that escapes the lips,

As it slips and slides and slides and slips,

It is contentment, what one says aaah! to,

That makes the long “a” obligato.